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Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788)
Bust at the Konzerthaus, Berlin

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

born: 8 March 1714
died: 14 December 1788
country: Germany

In 1773 the English music historian Charles Burney cautioned that the works of CPE Bach were ‘so uncommon, that a little habit is necessary for the enjoyment of [them]’. In fact, he claimed, many critics faulted Bach for writing works that were ‘fantastical’ and ‘far-fetched’. Burney, however, then rushed to Bach’s defence. ‘His flights are not the wild ravings of ignorance or madness, but the effusions of cultivated genius. His pieces … will be found, upon a close examination, to be so rich in invention, taste, and learning, that … each line of them, if wire-drawn, would furnish more new ideas than can be discovered in a whole page of many other compositions.’

Indeed, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788), second son of Johann Sebastian, was both revered and criticized by his contemporaries for his bold departures from conventional modes of musical expression. During his years as ‘first harpsichordist’ at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and later as music director of the principal churches in Hamburg, Bach perfected a highly original and intensely personal compositional style known as the empfindsamer Stil (literally, the ‘sensitive style’). Bach’s approach to musical expressiveness found voice in frequent mood changes, wide melodic leaps, abundant rests and ‘sighing’ motifs, irregular phrase structures, the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythmic figures, deceptive cadences, and dramatic, rhetorical harmonic interjections. Bach became particularly renowned for his ability to improvise fantasias—seemingly free-form, stream-of-consciousness flights of fancy characterized by unmeasured rhythm and distant harmonic excursions. Yet underlying even the most improvisatory of his compositions is a coherent structure. Bach himself instructed his students to construct such fantasias by first devising a strict harmonic foundation, and he even published an analysis of one of his own pieces in which he presented the skeletal framework lying beneath its surface irregularity.

Emanuel Bach’s music thus breaks dramatically away from, yet also builds upon, the early eighteenth-century style perfected by his father. His compositions mark one of the first—and among the most inspired—repudiations of the Baroque aesthetic, in which a single unified mood dominates each movement. Significantly, however, Bach does not simply contrast two emotional states, as is typical in later Classical works, but rather explores a multitude of affects juxtaposed in close proximity and often set off by rests or dynamic changes. In fact, CPE Bach not only set in motion many of the changes that would become manifest in the music of Haydn and Beethoven, but also looked beyond the Classical period to many of the ideals of the nineteenth century.

from notes by Leta Miller © 2010

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